We see the market emerge as the main venue, the one arena in which everyone can (freely?) act upon and reenact their natural desires — some more actively, others less so, as they all go about pursuing their interests. And this is more or less taken for granted by both theorists, Hobbes and Hayek, which brings another question to mind: in what respects does Hayek’s account diverge from Hobbes’s view?
In my mind, the difference between the two can be traced to one thing only: Hayek’s rather lackadaisical account of the behavior on the part of all those who are subject to the forces of the market.
Hobbes conceived of the market as an all-determinant, irresistible force, virtually enslaving everyone, both the most powerful and the least, to its impersonal dictates, well nigh predicting everyone’s response. But Hayek’s picture of the average participant, willing or unwilling, was of a happy-go-lucky, innocent bystander with everything to gain and nothing to lose. While Hobbes’s emphasis was on market constraints, Hayek’s was on its freedoms.
Both views have much to recommend themselves, as each expresses a partial truth, an aspect of the institution we call “the market.” That said, one gets a distinct impression that it is Hayek who errs on the side of undue optimism: he looks at the phenomenon of the market and market-related activities through rose-colored glasses.
Consider one example of such an activity: vulgar consumerism (commodity fetishism was Marx’s term). It’s certainly the most passive form of participation in the operations of the market, both passive as well as indispensable, for which very reason it’s tailor-made to fit Hayek’s somewhat shallow depiction of the average happy-go-lucky, unsuspecting participant. But why should awareness, or self-awareness, as to the vagaries or causes of one’s behavior be a relevant determination at all?
A particle subject to a Brownian motion, or a body to a gravitational pull, behave as they do, end of story! Awareness or consciousness has nothing to do with the forces which determine their movement.
I suggest it’s no different with the unsuspecting consumer — Hayek’s poster boy for the unfettered, happy capitalism. Passive or not, experiencing a sense of freedom while in effect in bondage, he or she is equally complicit in the market’s operations. Each is subject to the same impersonal forces as all others who are fully aware of them and act on that knowledge.
Again, consciousness has got nothing to do with it. It doesn’t alter the facts.
It is precisely this view of capitalism and its adjunct institution, the market — of capitalism with a happy face — which makes Hayek dismiss the alternative conception of “individualism” which, according to some analysts (McPherson, for instance), comes part and parcel with the system, as a caricature. But caricature or not, “possessive individualism,” the idea that the ethos of modernity may be defined by our never-ending desire for ever-greater accumulation of wealth and possessions, is not as easy to dislodge. Even vulgar consumerism, a trivial example, to be sure, testifies to this effect, most compellingly perhaps, because it’s trivial.
In a sense, Hayek reveals his natural prejudices and biases when he argues on behalf of private property as a sacred institution, his idea of a prerequisite for an orderly society. Never mind the fact that in so doing, he, in effect, espouses the concept of “possessive individualism,” the very concept he’s so intent on defeating. It’s certainly a blind spot on his part, an ideological dead end. More succinctly, perhaps, there is nothing whatever to justify such a conclusion, or postulate, as the case may be. Cooperative communities, based on mutual aid and co-operation, have been around since the beginning of time; and they’ve been successful.
Hayek’s inattention to these realities speaks volumes. Only ideology could make a person of his intellectual stature so blind.